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Buddhism and Politics

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It’s election season again… mid-terms this time. Should engaged Buddhists get involved, as Buddhists that is, or not? Or should we just keep quiet and go to the voting booth as though our spiritual practice has nothing to do with our vote?

Maybe… maybe not.

A while ago, I wrote:

My sense is that many people (particularly Buddhists) get all weird and phobic about the notion of ‘politics’ when really all it means, in its simplest form, is the use of power. Power itself, just like emotions, is neutral. It is how we work with it that makes it positive or negative, that creates beneficial actions or harmful ones. Power is everywhere, including in Buddhist centers. So to take part mindfully and skillfully in politics can be a practice, just like anything else.

So, here are some thoughts on Buddhism and politics, as non-dualistically as I can manage them.

I just read an interesting article by Van Jones and Billy Wimsatt. The bottom line, according to them: “Voter guides are cheap and easy and they help win elections. The right-wing uses them better than we do.” Jones and Wimsatt write,

According to these voter guides (which exist in all 50 states), the vast majority of Democrats in Congress are “Anti-Jesus” and have a “faith friendly” rating of zero. No matter that the majority are Christians and people of faith. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republicans are similar to John Ensign: They get a perfect score.

The goal of this campaign, created by is to fax these voter guides to 120,000 churches, to be distributed among congregations during Sunday services.

Clearly, people of other religious persuasions are linking up their religious and political beliefs. Not that this makes it the right thing to do, but it’s happening.

So what would happen if we were to play around a bit with a Buddhist perspective on elections? (Please note I did not say “the” Buddhist perspective. I would never presume that there is one Buddhist opinion on anything, much less politics. Buddhists are, by nature, a pretty un-definable group of folks. Have you ever tried to organize a bunch of Buddhists to do anything? It’s worse than herding cats.)

A number of years ago, we tried that at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. We created a guide to the 2004 elections. In the guide, we sketched out some of the major issues of that year and explored how Buddhist teachings might be relevant to those issues. As a nonprofit organization, we could not endorse candidates or parties, but we listed the positions that each candidate had taken in relationship to that issue and encouraged people to decide for themselves how their dharma practice might inform their vote.

It’s no surprise, of course, that BPF was and still is a progressive, left-leaning organization, so we were not without our own biases on the candidates and the issues and you’ll no doubt pick up on those in the text below. But our attempt with this guide was to offer information and encourage people to get involved in the electoral process in whatever way they determined was appropriate for them.

So, here’s a walk down memory lane… an excerpt from that original Election Guide. (The original document is quite long, which is why I’m only including one issue here. The other issues it covered were the economy, globalization, human rights/civil rights, the environment, and health care. If there’s interest, I can post the text from the rest of the guide.) Amazing to think back on a time when Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Al Sharpton were all in the running…

I’m interested to hear what you think. How relevant is your Buddhist background when you consider how you are voting, or to take a step further back, how you relate to the whole electoral/political process in general?


Election 2004 Guide to Issues and Candidates’ Positions

From the Buddhist Peace Fellowship

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship offers the following information for the purpose of voter education about the major campaign issues of 2004. As a nonprofit organization, we do not endorse specific candidates, nor do we take specific stands on legislative issues. As an organization whose mission is to help beings liberate themselves from the suffering that manifests in individuals, relationships, institutions, and social systems, we do encourage all those who value teachings of wisdom and compassion to actively and thoughtfully engage in these issues within your sanghas and communities.

This document provides a basic outline of some of this year’s major issues, their potential impact on the lives of sentient beings, and each candidate’s position on them. For some of these issues, we have included thoughts from a dharmic perspective. But in the spirit of inquiry, we echo Gautama Buddha’s injunction: “Do not accept anything by mere tradition. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything because it agrees with your opinions or because it is socially acceptable. Do not accept anything because it comes from the mouth of a respected person. Rather, observe closely and if it is to the benefit of all, accept and abide by it” (the Kalama Sutta).

Information on candidates’ positions comes from The New York Times and is current as of February 14, 2004. Please keep in mind that these positions may change; we suggest you follow news sources regularly to keep yourself informed. And most of all, we encourage you to exercise your civic responsibility and vote in your state’s primary and on November 2, 2004.

Terrorism and National Security

This election year, the specter of terrorism looms large for Americans. In a December 2003 Gallup Poll, a majority of Americans ranked it as the most important issue that will determine how they vote. The attacks of September 11, 2001, continue to reverberate in our national psyche and nearly all of our current lawmakers and politicians have placed terrorism on the top of their agendas. The responses and strategies they present almost always revolve around increased levels of military spending and intervention, and curtailing of civil rights and privacy. Other practical alternatives that would work to keep us safe have been offered, though these are usually given less coverage in the mainstream press – for example, Sen. Schumer’s bill (passed in January 2003) to provide $150 million to plug the gap in US port security. A number of political and spiritual leaders urge us to address the root causes of terrorism around the world. But the main discourse has been dominated by militaristic responses.

In 1999, the U.S. spent $281 billion on defense, far outranking the second biggest spender, China ($89 billion). In the 2000 federal budget, $291 billion was allocated for defense compared to $35 billion for education. The next president and administration will choose whether to continue this same course. And they will decide on major policy issues related to use of our defense. In 2003, the Bush Administration made the decision to bypass the United Nations and stage a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, under the premise that the U.S. was in imminent danger from the Iraqi government. This premise has yet to be proven true, and the future ramifications of such a decision are critical.

From a Buddhist perspective, the question of intention and motivation is helpful to consider. What is the intention behind these actions and proposals? How much is driven by panic, fear, and the profit motive? What would a life-affirming approach to these issues look like? One of the best known quotes from the Dhammapada is “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.” How does this teaching apply to this issue?


Candidates Positions

George W. Bush

• Following Sept. 11 attacks on U.S., instituted policy of pre-emptive strikes against suspected threats to the nation’s security, where U.S. would act alone or with others to protect the nation. • Prosecuted successful war against Taliban forces in Afghanistan and is currently working to create a stable, democratic government there.

• Invaded Iraq, calling it a threat to nation’s security. • Swift military victory in Iraq was followed by violent aftermath, halting efforts at stabilizing new government. • Won congressional approval of $87 billion for continued military operations and aid in Iraq and Afghanistan. • Calls for a Palestinian state as part of yet-to-be-adopted “road map for peace” plan. • Administration has had a deep rift with some traditional allies in Europe over war in Iraq.


Howard Dean

• Opposes the war in Iraq. • Would transfer sovereignty to “credible and legitimate” Iraqi leaders and “encourage the United Nations to take responsibility for this political transition.” • Supported war in Afghanistan. • “One priority should be strengthening our bonds with other countries, especially our historical allies in a world growing ever more interdependent.” • “Our long range foreign policy ought to embrace nation building, not run from it.” • Would open talks with North Korea. • Would triple American financing to $30 billion over 10 years to combat unconventional weapons around the world. • Has said he would approve the use of force to halt genocide. • Would increase finances to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile. Would appoint a nonproliferation czar and convene a summit within six months to draw up a “global nuclear compact”


John Edwards

• Mr. Edwards voted for the war last year in a Congressional resolution but against the $87 billion appropriation in the fall to finance rebuilding and some military operations. • Would put the Iraqi Civilian Authority under the control of the United Nations. • Voted to enlarge NATO to include Eastern Europe.

• On North Korea: “We should negotiate with the North Koreans. We should be tough. We should require that they stop their nuclear development program. We should have the absolute ability to verify that that has occurred.” • On the Middle East: Has said that he believes “a two-state solution is ultimately the answer” but would not negotiate with Yasir Arafat. Would send an envoy to the region. • Would devote more resources to worldwide disarmament programs and to cooperative threat-reduction programs.


John Kerry

• Supported decision to go to war but now says he did so based on faulty U.S. intelligence. • Opposed $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan. • Believes greater international involvement is necessary in Iraq. • Supported legislation providing American expertise and funding to the nations of the former Soviet Union to help secure nuclear stockpiles, a program that he now supports extending to other countries.

• Fought against withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. • Voted to enlarge NATO to include Eastern Europe • Brought issue of investigations of U.S. involvement in Latin America, especially with the Nicaraguan Contras, to the forefront. • On Middle East: Sees the Bush Administration’s road map as an acceptable approach for reinvigorating the peace process, but says there must be verifiable security benchmarks that the Palestinian Authority can reasonably achieve.


Dennis Kucinich

• Opposed U.S. going to war, and wants United Nations to take over in Iraq. “It is time to bring our troops home.” • Says the U.S. must immediately work to ratify a number of international measures including: the Kyoto Treaty on Global Climate Change, the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the Landmine Ban Treaty

• Says, “Foreign aid should be used to protect our interests in terms of diplomacy, human rights, isolation of disease, environmental destruction and prevention of increased refugees to the U.S.” • Has proposed the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace dedicated to peacemaking and the study of conditions that are conducive to both domestic and international peace.


Al Sharpton

• Opposed war in Iraq. • Meet with Anan immediately, admit that we were wrong in our unilateral actions and negotiate the U.N.’s introduction into the process. • Open the rebuilding process up to the U.N. to all of our allies who have supported us over the last 50 years



About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

15 responses »

  1. This is very interesting, Maia. I remember that year – when I first met you, on my way to the DNC.
    In response to your questions, I would say that my Buddhist orientation determines everything about my politics. How could freeing all beings NOT be relevant to how we vote and act in the realm of politics?

    It’s pretty late; are you or anyone thinking about assembling such a guide? I’d like to see them widely distributed, and not just to Buddhists. Ideally, perhaps, BPF plus some other religious groups such as Sojourner’s and Tikkun might do something, with a statement of shared religious principles at the top and then the summaries about the candidates below.

  2. The guide seems well balanced to me. The positions are laid out succinctly and without any editorializing. I like it the paragraph that offers a number of questions to consider from a Buddhist perspective. By offering such a framework, the guide respects the right of each individual to make their own choice, and yet it could be helpful for those who aren’t sure how to apply their Buddhist background when voting.

    The interjection of religion into politics is not going away anytime soon, I fear. Along with power, there is influence. I’m not too enamored with power, but I would like to see more Buddhist influence, which I see as being a more subtle approach rather than the more forceful one as evidenced in the examples you gave.

    The state of our politics in this election season is akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burned.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Maia.

    If you are a Buddhist there is no non-Buddhist part of your life. There is a Buddhist way that you try to engage in relationships, a Buddhist way that you look at the way you spend your time, a Buddhist way you look at how you spend your income, a Buddhist way you look at how you earn your livelihood, and a Buddhist way you to decide how to cast your vote and how to express yourself politically.

    As you say, there is no universal agreement among Buddhists about the right solutions to political issues or even how to prioritize them. There can be agreement, however, about trying to not make one’s political actions the product of greed, aversion, or delusion, and about acting mindfully and employing right speech, etc.

    There also should be some degree of non-attachment and non-self in the way we conduct ourselves as well. We care deeply about outcomes and work hard for what we belieive, but the outcomes are not about ourselves, and we understand that the universe is not going to comply with all our wishes. We are going to need a good deal of equanimity and a deeper perspective on how causes and conditions evolve over time to deal with what, at least for now, looks like a debacle at the ballot box next month! I drew some consolation from a Gail Collins op-ed piece earlier this year about how many years it took (and how many defeats there were along the way!) before women’s sufferage became a reality in the United States. Working for issues we care about in a climate that isn’t entirely favorable to them takes persistence and courage, and it may take generations to reach one’s goals, but goals can be obtainable nevertheless. Slavery did end, women can vote, health care can be a right, and in the coming year gays and lesbians may be able to serve openly in the military. Change comes slowly with many reversals and defeats along the way, but it does happen. Keep the faith!

    • Thank you, Seth.

      The interesting thing, as I read your comment, is that I’m realizing that we can achieve important goals on one level — yes, slavery did end, women can vote — and yet on a deeper level the root suffering still remains. Racism is still firmly in place. Sexism has not disappeared. Perhaps this is one of the limitations of working through the electoral/legislative process.

  4. I think people put too much energy into electoral politics, and not enough into grassroots action, community building, and cross-issue collaborating. Especially at the federal level, the differences in actual decisions (as opposed to rhetoric) are becoming less and less, regardless of party affiliation. Take a good hard look at the Clinton and Obama Administrations, and the periods when each had majorities in one or both sections of Congress. How much concrete differences came out of those periods (not talk, but actual action that changed lives for the better). Is it enough to justify the amount of energy we spend on getting these people in office?

    Putting oodles of time into trying to get, or keep, one of these two parties in power is kind of backwards if you ask me. Do I vote? Sure. Do I research candidates? Sure. I have even gone and lobbied members of both the state and federal legislatures on particular issues. But I view all of that as part of a much bigger process, and consider elected power as only one form of collective power in society.

    In my view, it’s really difficult to develop visions and start actually implementing them in even symbolic ways in our lives when every two or four years, a majority of the people involved disappear to door-knock and do fundrasing for some candidate. What would excite me would be to see a Buddhist effort around particular issues, sustained for decades in the way some churches have committed to working with immigrants for example. Where people try and come together across party lines to build something, which would include lobbying elected people and speaking about people running for office, but which would be much larger than that.

    • Nathan, I’m coming to a place where I agree with you on the need to put our energy into other forms of power and decision-making processes. The whole electoral process feels bankrupt in many ways, and we mistakenly think if we find ‘just the right people’ to elect and be in power, things will be different. And then we nail them to the cross, like what’s happening to President Obama right now, from both the Right and the Left. The system itself is a huge mess.

      I’ve also thought it might be a worthy effort to focus attention on ways to reform that system or build a new one. We could develop a movement that could focus on one or two changes that really could make a dramatic difference. For example, how might things be different if we had a proportional representation or cumulative voting system. Lani Guinier tried to offer that vision and she was ostracized for it, but it’s worth looking at again. How might things be different if true campaign finance reform was implemented?

      We get tied up in knots working on these campaigns and for candidates who will inevitably fall short of our hopes and dreams… we exhaust ourselves in the process and get cynical. Maybe the problem is we’re playing in the wrong court.

      I also really like your vision of a Buddhist effort that would focus on the issues themselves and how to grow change from the grassroots level… slow work, but work that needs to be rooted deep and be sustained for the long haul. Both your comment and Seth’s reminds me of something Martin Luther King, Jr. said so beautifully:

      “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

  5. Hello to all,

    Maia, the question of Buddhism and politics was brought up at a recent meeting I attended. The person asked, “Is it proper for a Buddhist to get involved in the political process?” I found that a strange question and answered it much like Seth did here, “If you are a Buddhist there is no non-Buddhist part of your life.” If we live the engaged and aware life of a Buddhist then politics is just as much a part of our existence as in the breath we watch while meditating.

    Too, it is hard to deny Nathan’s view of “I think people put too much energy into electoral politics, and not enough into grassroots action, community building, and cross-issue collaborating.”

    By engaging in the three actions Nathan lists we are putting energy into electoral politics as well. It is grassroots efforts, what we do in our communities and collaborating with others that have direct effect in the voting booth. In a causal world whatever we do has consequences.

    And Maia, you write, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” This is why, as Buddhists, we practice to refine our morality and to be examples to others. That is part of acting as a Bodhisattva and the more we act like one, the closer we get to being one.

    I bow with respect,

  6. Maia,

    Working to reform or completely change the electoral system makes a lot of sense. It could be one of those collective projects that brings people together across party lines, and out of which develops other, unforeseen benefits.


    One of my main issues with an emphasis on electing candidates is that it becomes about partisanship and party politics. I’ve never voted a single party ticket in my life, and whenever I see efforts that geared towards electing Democrats, for example, I’m out. It doesn’t matter if I like the particular candidates on the ticket that time around, I’m not getting involved. Why? One, because it tends to perpetuate an Us vs. Them mentality, when the reality is much less black and white. Two, there’s rarely any sustainability to the movement because the movement was about a limited goal, getting someone elected, and once that’s over, people tend to disperse or flounder about, trying to find direction.

    “In a causal world whatever we do has consequences.” No doubt. And when those of us who don’t identify with a single political party and it’s candidates hear others actively suggesting that Buddhism is in-line with what the Democrats support, well, it creates a divide. And a lot of questions. If you think I’m exaggerating about the “actively suggesting” part, pick up any of the major Buddhist publications from 2008 and check out all the articles about Obama, just to give one example.

    One more issue to point out – a lot of people got involved in voter registration efforts in 2004 and 2008, including friends of mine. Why? Mostly to help get more people in a certain area who tend to vote a certain way get elected. When Republicans run the Federal government, you see a lot of Democrats running around, collecting registrations in heavily “liberal” areas. And now we’re seeing the opposite with members of the Tea Party, for example, trying to register people from highly “conservative areas. So, when I see Buddhist group X involved in voter reg. campaigns, it’s really hard not to link that to party politics. Which is why I’d like to see something broader, that could appeal to across political lines, and might actually break through the dualisms of electoral politics.

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  8. Interesting Maia that you raise this question of politics and Buddhism. Much needed indeed since it seems to me that Democrats have lost their political compass, and Buddhists are more focused on personal salvation than public affairs.

    Interesting that in 2004 you talked about appealing to people across political lines and breaking through the dualism of electoral politics. OMG, have we come a long way since then! According to Political Compass – – both candidates today are on the right of center, not very far apart from each other. We have left the dualism to become a monolithic one party nation, with the third party not even invited at the table for the debate. Democracy has been highjacked by big money. We voted for Obama who promised change and he surrounded himself with the same old group from the Bush and Clinton administrations — and we shouldn’t forget that Clinton is the Democratic President who started the major unraveling of Democratic politics with his revoking of the Glass Steagal Act and his signing of NAFTA. So in my opinion, elections have turned into a theater, in the style of “The Hunger Games”. Unless we protest, and speak a language of dissent — which we might remember the Obama administration has utterly silenced with his signing of the NDAA bill — one would have to be really naive to expect any change from the political process in place today. All we can do is choosing the least of two evils. And pretending that we can transcend this situation without uprooting the system in place is . . . well, I leave it up to you to name that one.

  9. In a state of affairs as the one we find ourselves in right now, the one thing we should remember is that, regardless of how crazy things might look, they are not that way by mistake. The people who have highjacked the power — meaning big money and its power-grip on the military/corporate/political complex — are very happy the way it is. And to think that we can change anything, outside of minor civil questions, without uprooting the entire edifice is, in my opinion, naive. Protest and dissent is all we have left. And that is being silenced by Obama signing the NDAA act. And lets stop thinking that he is just a victim of circumstances. Obama should take responsibility for surrounding himself with the same old people from the Bush and Clinton administrations. So why should we expect them to create any Change? Lets not forget that it’s Clinton who started the major unraveling of the Democratic politics with his revoking of the Glass Steagal Act, and his signing of NAFTA. Today, all we have left is Protest — which BTW Obama has silenced by signing the most anti-constitutional NDAA act last new year’s eve. What’s happening in Europe and the Middle East needs to happen here. We need, not just a few thousands but a few millions protesting on the Mall in Washington. Short of that, Big Money will keep strengthening its destructive power over the entire planet with no ‘enemy’ to keep it at bay.

  10. Here is the link I wanted to post last night to show how we have moved from a dualistic politics toward a monolithic one party nation:

    The third party which used to participate to the Debate is no longer invited at the table, and no one seems to even think that this is not democratic. But without a third party we are basically choosing between two candidates who have been vetted by Big Money. No wonder nothing ever changes regardless of the beautiful rhetorics. Talk is cheap. Lets look at the facts. Since 2007 my husband and I, who are now retired, have spent an average of minimum three hours a day each, reading, watching and getting informed (outside of the mass media) about the current economics and political process. I could tell you countless examples, blow by blow, where Obama has WILLINGLY prolonged the Wall Street/Corporate/Military agenda under the grip of Big Money. This is a hard truth to accept and to process, but to deny it is to passively legitimize the take over of Big Money across the planet. It is like passively accept that “business as usual” is the only way — with its globalization with Profits at all costs, aggressive endless wars in the name of Security, massive transfer of wealth from the masses into a few hands, and quasi genocide of life on the planet. To play the voting game as if it was a legitimate democratic process is, in my opinion, giving a hand to the predators.

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